Older than Austin, Montopolis opens up its history

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015 Austin360

Established in 1830, Montopolis predates Austin by nine years. For a short time, it competed vigorously with Austin’s predecessor, Waterloo, for predominance on this stretch of the Colorado River.

One might not guess at this past glory, zooming past the Southeast Austin rustic enclave on the way to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport or beyond.

Yet a systematic tour of the old neighborhood — bigger than downtown Austin — confirms why its founder, Jesse Cornelius Tannehill, thought Montopolis could compete with other Central Texas upstarts.

It is located on a high, wooded bluff above the river, crucial when one considers the area’s devastating floods, which did not end until the early 1940s with the completion of the big dams upstream. Also, the land is fairly flat and fertile. Even today, tall prairie grass springs up where the land is disturbed or abandoned, even amid brown fields left over from former dumping grounds.

The particular key to its early attraction, however, was a ford on the Colorado River. The crossing was used by the Spanish on El Camino Real de Los Tejas, and surely by the Tonkawas and other Native Americans before that. In fact, Steven Gonzales, director of the group that oversees the historic trail, said he believes that temporary Spanish missions built in 1730 would have been located above that ford, perhaps in what is now Roy Guerrero Park.

In the 1880s, the ancient ford was overshadowed by a truss bridge. It washed away during the huge 1935 flood, witnessed by living Austinites of a certain age, and was replaced in 1938.

That bridge was a crucial link to Bastrop and everything to the east, making the unincorporated village of Montopolis a familiar stopping point alo1ng the way.

Long before that, the land supported multiple plantations and a freedmen’s community known as Burditt’s Prairie, as well as generations of African-American, Latino and other residents pulled in by agricultural activity and relatively cheap land.

Austin began annexing Montopolis in 1952, and it has been something of a political, cultural and social hot potato ever since, the site of pitched battles over affordable housing, fair education and equitable amenities.

Its history helps explain why.

The ideal guide for a Montopolis tour on a wintry morning was Fred McGhee, energetic archaeologist, activist, husband and father who lives in a sustainable house he constructed on Thrasher Lane on Montopolis’ southern verge.

McGhee wrote “Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood” for Images of America, an essential series of local-history picture books. Perhaps because of his academic training, the volume’s structure and prose are often superior to those of similar works.

McGhee picked me up at 9 a.m. in the parking lot of Dolores Catholic Church, geographically and perceptually near the area’s center on Montopolis Drive between Porter Street and Felix Avenue, major crossways. Over the course of the next few hours, we ranged over most of the historical Montopolis between Grove Boulevard and Texas 71, Riverside Drive and U.S. 183.

We crossed U.S. 183 at one point to check out an unassuming limestone house that was built between 1846 and 1852, once part of the Jones Plantation. We later crossed the river to discern the remains of the segregated east campus of the Texas School for the Deaf, located behind the city’s current animal shelter. Nearby also stood the Montopolis Drive-In, which opened in 1947.

McGhee explained that, conceptually, Montopolis sometimes spilled over into what we might think of as the Springdale, Del Valle or Pleasant Valley districts. In fact, it was part of the 35,000-acre Santiago Del Valle Grant, purchased in 1832 by a Mexican attorney who “never set foot in his real estate venture,” McGhee reported. Del Valle quickly subdivided it.

McGhee’s brawny vehicle allowed us to go off-road a few times, including down a muddy path to a former dump that has been rehabilitated, in part, by two groups of ecological activists.

Back at the heart of Montopolis are two very old sites. St. Edward’s Baptist Church could claim to be the oldest continuously operating African-American Baptist church in Travis County. The older parts of the building are to the rear of the current limestone façade. Burditt’s Prairie Cemetery, a few blocks away, dates to slavery days. Partly reclaimed, it still inters the deceased. We spent time at a recent grave site but also in an overgrown thicket where weathered headstones are hidden from view.

Outside the heart of Montopolis, one steers through a series of idealistic housing developments that go back to the pioneering efforts of the Rev. O. Fred Underwood in the 1960s. One could trace, like rings in a tree trunk, the modern history of Montopolis by the types of affordable housing built in each decade.

We ended the tour along Grove Boulevard, visiting the neighborhood’s undisputed success stories — the Daniel Ruiz Branch of the Austin Public Library, Austin Community College’s Riverside Campus, the old Austin Country Club where legend Harvey Penick taught generations of golf pros, and the splendid Roy Guerrero Park, which rivals Zilker Park in attractions and beauty.

Not much more than a log cabin in 1830, Montopolis had grown to 20 families by the time it was planned out in 1839 to rival the future Austin. After losing preeminence to the capital city, it remained fairly sleepy for more than 150 years.

Following the Civil War, Burditt’s Prairie was one of at least 15 freedmen’s communities recorded in what is now Austin. In many ways, what remains follows the patterns found in areas such as Bouldin, Bluff Springs and parts of Central East Austin. Latinos migrated to the area in the early 20th century. Density remained fairly low and housing inexpensive. Retail congregated on one or two main streets, and small churches dotted the landscape.

McGhee covers this progression in detail, acknowledging leaders such as artist Sam Coronado, Father Underwood of Dolores Church and Joaquin Mariel of Ecology Action. He does not neglect the impact of Bergstrom Air Force Base from the 1940s onward and the arrival of student housing along Riverside Drive in the 1970s, now turning into higher-priced urban residences.

Other speculative developments now disturb the once neglected area.

“Although it still has a ‘secret beach’ and other undercover gems,” McGhee writes, “today’s Montopolis is no longer hidden as it once was.”

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